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Darwin Correspondence Project

Interview with Randal Keynes

Randal Keynes is a great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin, and the author of Annie’s Box (Fourth Estate, 2001), which discusses Darwin’s home life, his relationship with his wife and children, and the ways in which these influenced his feelings about nature and religion.

Date of interview: 7 August 2008


1. Introduction

Dr White:
We're delighted, here, to have Randal Keynes in the [Cambridge] University Library - in the Keynes Room! - visiting the Darwin Correspondence Project. Randal is a great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin and a great researcher of Darwin, and he's written a wonderful book called Annie's Box, which provides a uniquely intimate portrait of Darwin's life and work, and I wanted to ask Randal some things which came to my mind as I read his book.

2. Darwin's influences

Dr White:
There's a quotation towards the beginning of your book in a letter that Darwin writes to Emma just before they are married, in which she says she will humanise him: ?Teach me there is a greater happiness than building theories and accumulating facts in silence and solitude.? Your book seems to counter prevailing popular portraits of Darwin as the solitary genius, and of scientific discovery as a product of a pure reasoning individual working in isolation from society and its influences. I wonder if you wanted to expand on that.

Randal Keynes: I think the first point to make is really that in those first years of his scientific work, on the Beagle and then in London, he was very solitary in one way. He had an idea which he knew was going to be shocking to many people, and it's pretty clear that he was very, very careful about who he revealed it to and what he said about it, so he was having to do much of his thinking in private. But at the same time, it's quite clear that he was always happiest talking with others about all of his ideas, and saw the development of science as something that happened between scientists talking, discussing, arguing, comparing ideas; and it's quite clear, I think, to any historian of science, that the great achievements, like Darwin's, and many others, are not the result of solitary genius - outstanding thinking by one person completely apart from his age - but are normally built on the work of an age and [of] all the scientist's colleagues.

6. Darwin's poetic sensibility

Dr White:
There seems to be an emotional component of that. I'm always struck by Darwin's remark in the
Autobiography that his poetic sensibility dries up through a lifetime of work in science, that he's unable to enjoy poetry and music; and this juxtaposition that he makes between science on the one hand and literature and the arts on the other seems too hard and fast?

Randal Keynes: Yes.

Dr White:
? and doesn't really capture the poetry that's in his own writing and his scientific sensibility.

Randal Keynes: Yes, I think that's right, and most interestingly, I think after writing how his ability to appreciate poetry had declined through the years, he was persuaded by his wife and daughter to take a holiday in the Lake District, and in 1879 he went to the Lake District, and it's recorded that he re-read his Wordsworth and he clearly found a pleasure in the landscape and some of the poetry that revived the great pleasure that he had had when he was much younger, when Wordsworth was one of his favourite poets.

Dr White:
Yes, you mention that he takes this copy of Wordsworth in which he had marked sections of this very long poem according to whether or not they were useful - and, presumably, the parts that he didn't want to have to read again - very much as he annotated his own scientific library: very systematic and economical.

Randal Keynes: Yes.

7. How, and what, do we know of Darwin's opinions about religion?

Dr White:
I wanted to talk, now, a bit about Darwin's religious beliefs, which is a very big part of your book. I think it's something that Darwin scholars continue to be interested in and something that we [at the Darwin Correspondence Project] get asked a lot about ourselves.

I wondered if you could talk a little bit about what sorts of evidence we have; what it's possible to conclude with any certainty. You, and Jim Moore [another Darwin biographer] as well, talk about the 1840s as this very crucial period, particularly the later 1840s, when he's reading a lot of philosophical and theological material, or questioning; and some scholars have argued for a crucial turning point, either at the death of his father or of his daughter Annie.

So, Desmond [Moore's co-author] and Moore claim that it's Annie's cruel death that destroyed (I'm just quoting) ?the tatters of belief in a moral, just universe?, and that Darwin now took his stand as an unbeliever. I wonder if you can?

Randal Keynes: Yes. Hmm, I think the first point I'd make is that in some areas of his thinking, he thinks aloud - on paper - in his notebooks. We have the species notebooks; we have the metaphysical notebooks, which are about human nature; we don't have notebooks on religion, he didn't think aloud about those issues.

That was partly, I think, because he didn't feel these were ones in which his ideas were going to have great value to other people. He thought he might have ideas that would be of value on species and human nature. He always felt there were many other people at the time who were willing, eager, to sound off about all the issues of faith. He, I think, wanted to leave all of that to them.

All we have, therefore, is, sort of, scraps. We have things we can work out from letters that other people wrote to him, especially Emma. We have her side of a small correspondence, and we can work out what he must have been saying to her for her to say what she did.

We then have the books that he read, which are very important - and in general, Darwin's reading is a fascinating subject - and one can work out a lot from them. And then, I think more and more as he became a notable figure, after the publication of the
Origin of Species, only then, really, did people start asking him for his views. And he was, while saying always, ?My views are worth very little; this isn't my field,? he was quite willing, often, after having said that, to make quite a bold claim about his beliefs. So we have a number of statements. And then there's one correspondence with his colleague Asa Gray in the 1860s, I think really the only time he engages with somebody else in a discussion of issues of doctrine, morality, metaphysics?, but that lasts only a certain amount. [For more on this correspondence, see our Design in Nature section.]

I think the first point I would make about his religion is that he tried always to think it out very carefully: it was very conscious, and he wanted it to be reasonable, and he felt that reason was always the right criterion to apply in trying to decide whether something should be believed or not. In this, he was a child of his parents and grandparents, of the unitarian tradition: non-conformist, but always based to some degree on reason, reasonableness, and all of that.

He then, through the 1830s and 40s, as he came to realise points about natural and human life, and the implications of the possibilities that he had identified for: the biblical account of the creation of the world; humans; animals? he was questioning hard. He also had to think very hard because Emma wanted him to share her belief; and he very much wanted to share it, but found that he couldn't square certain of his ideas with it. He took those issues and problems, I think, through the 1830s after he really sort of engaged with Emma, into the 1840s, through the 1850s with his experience of the death, first of his father, and then of his daughter Annie, and into the 60s where I think he was thinking more also of the implications of the whole theory of evolution by natural selection as he had developed it and gained some confidence in it. Through all of this, he's thinking hard all the time, thinking always about what is reasonable, and not able to add to what is reasonable ?what I can put my faith in?.

The big difference between him and Emma was that while he based his beliefs, I think, on what he could find reasonable, she was committed to the act of faith. Faith wasn't easy [for her], faith wasn't a comfort, it was a challenge, because she clearly had considerable difficulty in believing what she was putting her faith into, but she felt that faith was the really important, fundamental act. That was important for her. Darwin just didn't have that in him, and I think that if I were going to study religion in the first half of the 19th century, I think I'd look very hard at this notion of faith: why - the points I've made - easy or difficult; why people made it - the challenge of faith ? and look there for the explanation of the difficulties Darwin and Emma had with each other's beliefs and how they found some reconciliation.

8. The morality and truth of scripture

Dr White:
I'm struck by, also, this moral dimension to Christianity. Darwin, several times, comes back to this doctrine of eternal punishment as somehow epitomising what's wrong or what's immoral about Christianity. He eventually calls this the ?damnable doctrine?. It's curious to me that he would focus on that so much, because it's a doctrine that was widely criticised within the Anglican church, and the kinds of liberal theologians and unitarians that were part of Darwin's circle would not necessarily believe in that. So they wouldn't have identified their Christianity with that doctrine, yet Darwin seems to want to keep coming back to that. Do you have any explanation for that?

Randal Keynes: I see the point, and I can only suggest that he just doesn't like the fudge involved in letting yourself off the hook of the doctrine by finding some way of working round it. What's important to him is that your ideas should be clear and make sense; and if there is a doctrine, and if it's central to the body of material that your beliefs are based on, you can't get round it. He is very concerned about the truth of scripture, and he's concerned about the truth of scripture because it's held to be the basis for all of these beliefs, and he feels that the whole structure is just rickety. He can't believe that we were meant to understand it to be sound, and therefore to believe in it. I can only guess that if you had put your point to him, he would have said that the doctrine of eternal punishment is one of the most extreme doctrines that are bundled up in this set of principles, and, ?I'm just not satisfied with the whole structure.?

Dr White:
It's kind of ironic, then, that his work becomes such a resource for some liberal theologians who were trying to really reform doctrine, reform the church, in light of science.

Randal Keynes: Indeed, and I think that he's so pleased to be able to quote Christian thinkers and writers who see no contradiction between his arguments and their beliefs? He doesn't ever, to my knowledge, use the same maneuvers to square his own beliefs, or pretend that his own beliefs square with theirs.

Dr White:

Randal Keynes: He says: ?They can do it; fine. Perhaps you can.? But he doesn't say, ?And I'm going to.?

Dr White:

9. Emma Darwin's influence and struggle with faith

Dr White:
I'd like to come back to Emma again. I think you show that Darwin's religious development wasn't done in isolation but within this context of a marriage and family life, and Emma, who's often been portrayed as a devout Christian with this simple, heartfelt conviction; a rather passive and supportive figure? In your account, I think she becomes much more active. It's clear that she's also searching, questioning, so maybe if you could talk a bit more about that? Also, the nature of this painful void?

Randal Keynes: Yes.

Dr White:
? which you've touched on just a moment ago, is it, do you think, primarily one of doctrine; of belief? I think you also suggested it was about the nature of belief itself and whether belief is based on feeling or meaning.

Randal Keynes: Yes. I think the first point about Emma is that she was almost a year older than him, and I'm sure that through their childhood he was ?

Dr White:
Looking up to her?

Randal Keynes: ? following her, and there are some comments, I think before he marries her, before he proposes to her, in which he makes it quite clear that he admires her. And it's a great surprise when she accepts him. I think that right the way through the relationship, she remains ahead or on a par with him. She's not, she's just not, the subordinate, subservient wife. She was highly intelligent and had a caustic wit which can be absolutely wonderful - she can outdo Oscar Wilde with a paradox - and she is a very, very thinking reader right the way through her life through to the end. She had great difficulties, quite clearly, with her faith and it was all very modestly and gently put, but she never tells him, ?I have faith, why don't you share mine?? she always says, ?I aim for faith, could we not both??

Paul White: [Nods in agreement].

Randal Keynes: And there's one comment [about Emma] by their daughter Henrietta that in her later life she very much regretted that she wasn't able to have the same warmth in her feelings about the faith that she had when she was younger.

I think the void between them was a void simply due to this problem - and I think it was a very clear and simple problem - about reunion in the afterlife. I'm afraid to me the whole idea seems so peculiar I find it difficult to think of it as a real idea - that people really believed it - but I think we have to. I just take it that she did and that he couldn't, and there was just this aching hole in their set of beliefs that they could use to think of the future. It was clearly so important to her, as shown in her writings about reunion with her beloved sister, who died when they were both in their early twenties? It's quite clear how she was looking then to reunion in the afterlife. I have no difficulty in believing at all that it was a deeply felt hope and wish for her, and one that was effectively denied by many wise churchmen.

Dr White:

10. Parallels between Darwin's occupation and Emma's faith

Dr White:
What you said about Emma's faith being difficult rather than a comfort, something that she was striving for that was a struggle - and I'm thinking also about Darwin's humility as a man of science (this is something that's very clear in his own writing and in his letters to other people: always questioning, always searching, never complacent in his own scientific work) - and? I'm seeing a parallel between her religious journey and Darwin's scientific vocation, and wondering if there's a sense in which that spirit of inquiry was something that they could share, perhaps, or at least respect in each other.

Randal Keynes: Yes, that's a very interesting point, and I, yes indeed, follow you. They were both, I think? There's a point about modesty that I think is essential to his approach as a scientist and her approach to issues of faith, and both of them were conscientious in trying to work out what was right but didn't place great store by their own convictions and that makes very good sense as to how they could get on together. They were clearly so close to each other, and they clearly loved each other deeply. It's an extraordinarily close relationship in those ways - and yet there is this extraordinary difference - and that's perhaps what actually drew them together.

11. Darwin's support for the church as a social institution

Dr White:
Some have claimed that Darwin kept quiet about his religion because of concerns for respectability, and that his involvement in the local parish with the charities and so forth was an extension of this. Some of the correspondence we've just been working through in 1867 and 1868 shows an enourmous amount of time and trouble and dedication to church affairs, a real concern about sustaining devotion to the church in the community. Darwin's working hard because the local curates have let him down - they've let the village down: they're not there, they're doing bad things, and so forth - and he's really filling the gap.

I wonder how this squares with a reading of Darwin which you suggest, in which he grows increasingly critical of institutional religion. Is there a discontinuity between his belief and his practice? Does he retain some kind of respect for the present role of the church in society?

Randal Keynes: I think I would suggest that you need to distinguish between: the doctrines of the Anglican church, which is one very important issue for conforming Christians in Britain at the time; and the church and chapels as social institutions. If you look at belief and practice as two separate issues in the community that he lived in at the time, it's quite clear that the church had a function and a value within the community which was separate from the soundness of some of the doctrines that underpinned it.

I think there's a lot to say. The first thing is that he was quite clear with other people in the village, other gentry in the village, that education was the greatest social need for the poor people - the poor children - in the community, and that education should be non-doctrinal. Others had a confrontation with the vicar about that in the 1850s. Darwin arranged a compromise between the vicar, who wanted the only school in the village to be a school in which acceptance of the thirty-nine articles [of faith] was mandatory? Darwin arranged a compromise because he felt that it was so important to have a good school - and the best way of having a good school was to have a Church of England school - and he arranged for the children of non-conformists to be able to attend without embarrasment.

I think that in most of his support for the church in the community, he was supporting the church as a social institution. I think, also, he was a man of his times, and he believed that the church? the morality was mainly a morality that he could accept. He felt always, with Emma, that there was no argument about values, moral values; there was no difficulty there. So the church was a social institution to be supported because it guided other people - he was a man of his time: he felt that they needed guiding, perhaps, more than he did - towards right thinking, right behaviour, and so on, and I think that is really as far as his support for the church went. He didn't attend the church services ever after the early 1850s. There's a clear comment by one of his sons about how he saw him in the church only twice, at a funeral and a christening. So it's quite clear that he never attended the church. Now that was an act of open rejection of conformity, through from the early 1850s, and would have been seen to be defiant by everyone in the community.

12. The value of suffering

Dr White:
I think that you draw a contrast, in your book, between Emma's Christian belief that suffering is God's way of making us stronger, and Darwin's distant and uncaring creator; his view that the manifold suffering in nature is purposeless?

Randal Keynes: Can I just say there that Emma doesn't believe it. She understands that she ought to, and she says, ?I'm trying to??

Dr White:

Randal Keynes: ? and that's one of the points on which you see her trying to achieve faith in the way others do, and one of the reasons why I believe that faith was a problem for her.

Dr White:

Randal Keynes: But she certainly hoped it was true, that that was the explanation of pain and suffering. And Darwin didn't think that it was worth believing that that might be true.

Dr White:
Okay. I'm just wondering if, in Darwin's own moral theory, there is a kind of redemption for sorrowful experiences. He writes about how these experiences - and he's had them - how they produce a deepening of sympathy, and this sympathy is absolutely essential as a foundation to ethics.

Randal Keynes: Yes.

Dr White:
So if we're thinking about how the ethical instincts have evolved, these experiences of pain and suffering have been crucial. So is there a similarity, then, between naturalistic, evolutionary ethics and a Christian view of suffering as making one stronger? You might say the causes are different?

Randal Keynes: Yes, indeed, there is a link. I suggested that Darwin's ideas were linked with George Eliot's. In all of her writings on the value of sympathy for human understanding and moral values, yes, clearly you gain the understanding by experience. The experience has value because the understanding is just so
important, in both Darwin's and George Eliot's view. I think that Darwin, very possibly, felt that his attempt to explain the human moral sense, to explain its natural history, was something that he hoped would be of value for others. I think he might have hoped that Emma would appreciate it, and there's a very poignant comment that we know that she made late in her life after Darwin had died, when there was an issue in the family about what they should reveal, in the Life and letters that his son Francis was putting together, about his religious beliefs. Frances's sister Henrietta, she had a pretty limited view of what was respectable and what wasn't, and really wanted to keep the whole thing under wraps because it would shock the servants, things like that. But Emma said that she would be happiest if Darwin's ideas about the natural origins of our moral values were not revealed, because she was pained by his argument that they might be. I think that pain, that's got nothing to do with respectability, that's all to do with the challenge of a natural view of the origins of the moral sense to a view based on faith. That, I think, brings us back to this contrast between them, and suggests that it remained an open wound for her through their life together.

13. Darwin's use of subjective experience

Dr White:
Darwin is also concerned about sympathy as a potential impediment to scientific research, studying emotions in particular. He's worried about subjective feelings interfering with sound observations, especially when a parent is with their crying child and trying to observe the shape of their mouth [as Darwin requested of several parents he knew, while researching
Expression of the Emotions], and so forth. But, as you say, Darwin's views on human evolution arise partly through this experience of family life, his own feelings of fatherhood, and, if I can quote you, you say, almost at the very end [of Annie's box], ?The curiosity and compassion, the detached observation, sharpened and deepened by his own feeling, was the essence of his approach to the science of man.? I wonder if you could comment a bit on the importance of subjective experience, feelings, memories, as part of Darwin's method, however unconscious.

Randal Keynes: Yes. That's, again, a most interesting point, and I found when I looked into it, for the book, that nowadays everyone feels, ?objective is good, subjective is bad,? and there's a feeling that introspection is just dangerous. This all has to do with behaviourism, black boxes, and so on, since the 1950s, in psychological explanation.

It's quite clear that Darwin followed his contemporaries in feeling that looking inside yourself was a really interesting and important thing to do, and he does it very carefully, very conscientiously, in a number of most interesting texts. [In] one of them, he does it so well that what is actually, I'm almost certain, a purely scientific observation, is presented by many people as a piece of autobiography. In presentations of his autobiographical writing, there are usually two pieces. There's, first of all, the autobiography that he writes as an autobiography in the 1870s, and then there's another piece which is called,
Autobiographical fragments, and it was written in the 1830s and if you look at it, it's not a work of autobiography at all. It's a work in which he is trying to find out about the human capacity of memory by just thinking about his own. If you look at the memories that he records, and the ways he compares them with his sister's memories, and the kinds of thing he's looking at - what do you remember? how clearly? whether it's patchy or consistent, and so on - what he's doing is just introspecting. I can't really say much more than that about the value of it, but I believe strongly that at the time, there was a role for introspection - reflective introspection - in human psychology, and he was doing it as well as he could, for himself, in that passage, and in other passages where he comments on his own moral sense and so on.

I must say that I think there's a role for instrospection in the exploration of the human mind and experience.

14. Darwin's opinion of human nature

Dr White:
You suggest that Darwin had an unusual capacity for sympathy, including shame, guilt, the desire for approbation, the ability to recall past incidents in detail? and perhaps because of this, he makes this a general feature of human nature, sympathy. There are sources for this, you say, in Rousseau, Wordsworth and Eliot. So I'm wondering, then, if we should think of Darwin as an optimist about humanity and its future. Is he offering us a kind of earthly salvation through improvement of the human race?

Randal Keynes: I think he thought very well of human nature. I think he thought we were basically social and helpful to each other, and that we made these social arrangements, developed these instincts, in order to be able to do better in groups than we could do on our own as isolated individuals. That, I think, is the foundation of his belief in human nature and co-operation, and I think that he saw great value in co-operation, help to each other, charity, all of those kinds of institution, and I think, yes, at heart, he had faith in human nature.

Dr White:
That's a good place to end, so thanks very much.

Randal Keynes: Very good.